We talk to Scottish percussionist Colin Currie ahead of his festival, Metal, Wood, Skin, which will take place at London's Southbank and include four world premieres. Plus – busking in Santa Fe with Marin Alsop, reacking havoc with Wagner's Alberich and Drumming with Steve Reich: watch five of the best Colin Currie videos from around the web.
What is the main idea behind your Metal, Wood, Skin festival taking place at the Southbank?
The germ of this festival was born at least a couple of years ago when I realised that works written for me by MacMillan, Clyne, Reich and Andriessen were going to be born at around the same time. These are composers that I‘ve dreamed of working with, and having new pieces from, for quite some time and Southbank immediately and very confidently got behind the idea.
How will the festival introduce new audiences to the wide array of possibilities there are for percussion?
The works I have programmed show the real breadth of the music available for percussion. I am hoping the audiences will come to as many events as they can and get the percussion bug. It’s something where you can turn up very informally and stick your toe in the water and, if you enjoy what you hear, keep coming back. The festival covers a huge variety, from Steve Reich through to Birtwistle – these composers have almost nothing in common and yet both have written pieces for percussion. And I strongly believe that I have chosen works – even the more challenging ones – that will appeal to a broad listenership. Percussion is an art form that has expanded in quality and quantity more than any other instrument in recent times: all the pieces I have programmed are a representation of just how far we’ve come.
Tell me about Julia Wolfe’s 2012 piece rISE and fLY.
It’s a concerto for body percussion and street percussion so it’s informal yet very virtuosic music for a percussionist who has some ‘street’ skills, let’s say. Julia was very taken by two things when researching the piece. One was the body percussion element – using no instruments at all and just playing upper torso and using handclaps and things inspired by hip hop – and the other was using buckets and plates and rackety sounding cymbals inspired by busking. The piece takes the informality of these genres and presents them in an art music form.
And you are giving the world premiere of Steve Reich’s Quartet for 2 Vibraphones and 2 Pianos – what can we expect from the piece?
It’s a three-movement work that will feel familiar to people who know Reich’s music. But within the familiar fast-slow-fast movement structure Reich has allowed himself to be absolutely, blissfully free. There’s a lot of variety in the mood and harmonic changes of the work – more so than we’ve seen from him recently. I find it an especially uplifting piece – it has a very rigorous and brilliantly structural first movement, a lyrical second movement and finally a third movement that shows Reich at his most uplifting and catchy – everyone’s going to go away whistling the same tune!
What are the main things composers should consider when writing for percussion?
The most important thing is to think just how far the genre has come. An interesting yardstick is the new MacMillan concerto, which it’s fair to say would not have been conceivable at the time he wrote his First Concerto in 1992. Even from one very basic point of view, there’s an instrument in this one that didn’t even exist then: the aluphone, which is a very resonant instrument of two-and-a-half octaves with a bell-like tone and made of aluminum. Also, it is hard to imagine that such a technical and virtuosic keyboard part would have been written even two decades ago. Composers like James are aware of how far the art form has come and that’s what I suggest to composers now: to acknowledge what is achievable and to represent that in their music and push the genre even further.
What advice would you give to a young percussionist starting out?
I think more than ever the percussion world has reached something of a plateau in terms of technical developments but we continually need new repertoire to expand the musical palette of the form. There was, for a while (and rightly so), an obsession with expanding the techniques of the instrument and they have gone quite far now. Although they continue to develop, that pace is inevitably slowing down and we still need more pieces of rich and enduring quality. I would encourage anything that a young player can do to source the composers of their generation and work with them to bring out the best works for percussion possible.
Five Colin Currie videos from around the web
1. Einojuhani Rautavaara: 'Incantations' Percussion Concerto
Percussion concertos have grown more popular in recent years as the genre has attracted more and more well-known composers, including Rautavaara who completed this concerto in 2008.
2. Christopher Rouse: Der Gerettete Alberich
Rouse’s Der Gerettete Albericht, composed for percussionist Evelyn Glennie, can be described as a fantasy for solo percussion and orchestra on themes of Wagner. 'As Alberich's whereabouts are unknown at the end of the Ring,' writes Rouse in his own notes for the piece, 'it occurred to me that it might be engaging to return him to the stage so that he might wreak further havoc.'
3. Steve Reich: Drumming
As well as maintaining a demanding solo career, Colin leads the Colin Currie Group, here in music by Steve Reich. With sometimes three or more percussionists at the same instrument, timing and precision of movement are essential. The effect of waves of pulsing percussion leave any listener captivated.
4. Busking in Santa Cruz with Marin Alsop
Who needs a purpose built musical instrument when you can play a metal street sculpture? Here Colin accompanies maestro Marin Alsop and a special young guest in some impromptu busking on Pacific Avenue in Santa Cruz during the 2010 Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music.
5. Julia Wolfe: riSE AND fLY (trailer)
Colin has had many compositions composed specifically for him. For riSE AND fLY Julia Wolfe was inspired by street artists in New York. As intriguing to see as it is to hear, it might be a familiar style to children who have been introduced to Connect It by Anna Meredith through the BBC’s Ten Pieces project.